Is writing a vocation or just something we like to do?
By Sandra Hutchison
Religious people are used to the concept of someone being “called” to vocation — priests and ministers are supposed to be answering a call, as are deacons, monks, nuns, and so on. The call, one hopes, comes from God.
I’ve often wondered how that feels. Personally, I have never heard a divine voice literally calling out, “Hey! Sandra! Yes, you! DO THIS THING.”
Maybe some folks have. Certainly it gets reported that way in scripture. But I am always highly suspicious of anyone who claims to have received specific, detailed messages from the Almighty. My first thought is “schizophrenia,” my second thought is “con man,” and my third — say, if it’s scripture being quoted by someone — is “okay, let’s hear it, but you can assume I may question its provenance or your interpretation of it.”
On the other hand, Rumi tells us to listen to “the voice that doesn’t use words.” And I have heard that voice.
Once, during my junior year of college, in England, I was spending the holidays with cousins in Scotland. Sometime after midnight I was walking back to a party in Edinburgh where my cousins were supposed to still be after I’d gone off to the young people’s celebration of Hogmanay — New Year’s Eve under the clock of the Tron (I kissed a bobby and drank from a passing bottle of whisky and felt authentically Scottish for a moment).
As I was walking along I suddenly felt a very hard tug from somewhere to stop walking and instead pound down the sidewalk as fast as I could. Which I did. I arrived breathlessly just as my cousins were pulling away from the curb, just in time to stop them and get a ride back to their home for the night.
I’m not sure this mattered — I could have walked the rest of the way to my cousins’ house if I had to. The streets were quite safe. But it felt as if it mattered a lot. It felt as if I had been saved from something.
Was that God? A “guardian angel”? Some funky extra-sensory perception? My subconscious calculating times and probabilities better than my conscious? I have no idea. But it was a voice without words, and that’s not the only time I’ve listened to something like that (though that was probably the time that felt most consequential).
Still, my religious faith didn’t arrive until a couple of years later, after quite a lot of reading and some meditation (outside of the Christian tradition) and some physics and some church. My conversion moment essentially consisted of me saying, in meditative prayer, “Give me a sign,” and promptly getting something I interpreted as one.
However, in hindsight, I don’t feel that sign was a genuine weird mystical event. I was, at that point, completely primed to have something, anything, give me permission to go where I had already decided I wanted to go. Anything in the room would have done. A cricket chirping, a nod of my own neck, a puff of wind from the window. I don’t even remember what it actually was anymore. Because that wasn’t really the point. I chose.
And yes, everyone who is called has to choose whether to answer. But I think you can easily choose things you haven’t really been called to, also, and then tell yourself you were called to them. You can easily confabulate a desire with a calling.
For example, I often feel a little tug during the Eucharistic prayer. I want to lift my hand and sanctify that bread and wine right along with the priest, which I’m obviously not authorized to do. But I suspect that’s a BS thing on my part, because I’m also quite sure I don’t want to do the actual hard work of becoming and being a priest. It’s the religious equivalent of those people who come up to me at book signings to tell me that they have amazing stories to tell and they would be an amazing writer if only they had the time.
It could be worse. Imagine the pedophile priest who thinks, “I answered the call. I’ve sacrificed much to serve God and His people. Now God has provided for me. This child has been called by God to serve me.”
This is why I sometimes think a calling is better thought of as something more prosaic. Something as simple as somebody else in the church saying, “So, hey, our nominating committee thinks you should run for vestry.”
(Of course, when it gets this literal the whole idea of “being called” reminds me of a story my father likes to tell of a time he and his cousin were exploring the north of England and had been instructed by my great aunt to call Cousin Joan, who lived there. They had no desire to do this, so they stopped the car next to a field and yelled, “Cousin Joan!” Later, when Auntie Nan asked them if they had called Cousin Joan, they replied that they had, but she hadn’t answered.)
Authors often talk about being called to writing as if it is a vocation. I can remember sitting in the audience at a discussion with about eight writers at The Book House one afternoon when one of them said something along the lines of, “You write because you have to. If you don’t have to, you shouldn’t even do it.” And there was much nodding.
And yes, I agree that writing can feel like a vocation, in that you are giving up your time on earth to engage both conscious and unconscious parts of yourself in calling out a truth of some kind. It can feel like being touched with the spirit. It can feel like prophecy. But it can also be delusion, or ego, or hacking away, or a combination of all of the above.
Maybe I think this because I’ve written a lot of advertising. Enjoyed it, too. There’s plenty of creativity involved. Even a kind of willing suspension of disbelief that is not entirely unlike religious faith. By the time I’m done writing about that, say, inflation-protected variable annuity, I’ve usually also convinced myself that it’s A Most Excellent Product That Everyone Needs. But obviously I was really just hacking away at that to make a living. And the charges and fees are a killer.
I’ve also read plenty of published fiction that reads to me like someone just hacking away to make a living. (The later volumes of successful series are particularly prone to that, though thankfully not every author succumbs.)
But although we’d probably all prefer to read stuff that feels absolutely incandescent with the fire of truth, to the idea that no one should bother writing unless they are literally driven to do it, I say: Oh, come on.
Yes, it’s true that damaged, depressed people may feel compelled to write to try to fill an emotional hole that can’t be filled, or to establish a connection with some idealized other they can’t find in real life, or to process some traumatizing event in their lives. And yes, it’s true these folks are often brilliant and original, at least until they tragically destroy themselves. Extreme focus and need can do that.
The rest of us mostly write because we want to. Our productivity depends on our habits, the time we have available, and how preoccupied we may be by more fundamental needs like food and housing and child care.
Sometimes I think writers suggest that it’s a kind of calling or compulsion because they don’t want any more competition than they already have.
Sometimes I think they say it because they know the rewards are so long in coming and so uncertain that they feel they are doing you a real favor by scaring you off.
And sometimes I think writers believe that if it’s a sacred vocation that means it’s okay to not get a regular job, to continue working on our art despite the poor or non-existent compensation we are likely to receive. It’s okay to expect our spouses to support us. It’s okay to demand that quiet little writer’s nook where the kids won’t bother us, or escape to that lovely writer’s retreat in the mountains. It’s okay to sign terrible contracts. It’s okay to passively await the reading public’s verdict instead of getting out there and flogging our stuff. It’s art! We’ve been called!
Adapted from an engraving by The Brothers Dalziel in “Lalla Rookh: An Oriental Romance” by Thomas Moore. In the public domain, courtesy of http://www.oldbookillustrations.com.
Suggesting that writing is a calling, a vocation, is also convenient for readers and publishers. It’s arguably an excuse for not paying writers and artists (and the people who work most closely with them) a living wage. Sure, a few writers are wildly successful and a few more make a living at it, especially in the more workaday genres. But the great bulk of writers must have other means of support. (If you’ve ever wondered why literary fiction is so white and so dominated by the wealthy classes, there’s your answer.)
Teaching can be like this, too. I know so many adjunct professors who feel called to teach. I’m one of them. I love teaching. But if the job won’t really support us, it’s kind of crazy to keep doing it. Pathological, even. I do it because I can afford to (which is not because of my writing income, believe me). And I’m not sure this is the most moral decision I’ve ever made. By accepting the lousy terms of adjunct work, I’m arguably enabling a shamefully exploitative system.
I think we often need to clarify our thinking about being called to a vocation, any vocation. Yes, we may feel called to it. Yes, it may be satisfying some deep hunger in us. It may feel like a religious experience. It may even be a religious experience. But although Jesus expected to die on the cross, he still expected his disciples to eat. If people weren’t willing to put them up or feed them, they were to shake their sandals free of that town’s dirt and move on to a place that would.
I think what I’m trying to say is that being called to a vocation is complicated at best. It’s full of potential pitfalls. It’s worth taking the time to carefully examine and re-examine our motives. And if we ever see it as special permission to behave badly, then maybe it’s less a calling than a rationalization.
If you write, do you feel called to it? Do you see it as a vocation? I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.